Are You a Bee or Are You a Fly?

Spend a little time watching native plants in bloom and you are likely to witness a diverse array of colorful flying insects of all sizes, shapes, and colors.  Most  are seeking nectar, pollen, or both. Some will inadvertently transport pollen from one blossom to another.   Exactly what the native plant had in mind!

Some of these insects are likely to belong to our 4,000 species of native bees.   Others may be wasps.   A third and generally less well-known group are colorfully marked flies visiting flowers in search of nectar and pollen.    All three groups are important pollinators of native plants. A first step in identifying any one pollinator is deciding whether it is a bee, a wasp, or a fly.  And that is not always easy!

All 3 groups have bodies divided into a head, a thorax, and an abdomen.  All 3 groups have 6 legs and pairs of wings attached to the thorax.   Members of all 3 groups can be very colorful with intricate markings.  Bees tend to be hairy/fuzzy and wasps less so.

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A carpenter bee and a Vespid wasp visit Titi blossoms.  Both have 2 pairs of wings.

Check the Wings and Wing Position

A fundamental difference between bees and flies is their number of wings.  Flies belong to the order Diptera and have a single pair of wings.   Bees and wasps have 2 pairs of wings, but the wings on either side of the body are linked.  In many cases, bees will rest with wings aligned on top of their abdomens while flies usually land with wings angled away from their bodies.

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A flower fly, Helophilus, visits a fall aster.

Check the Antennae

A second and very useful clue is the size and shape of antennae.  Bees have long, slender antennae while flies have short, stubby antennae.  Compare the very short antennae on the above flower fly to the long, slender antennae of the below “polyester bee”.   Also take a moment to compare the “resting” wing position on the flower fly and the bee.

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Colletes species emerge in early spring.  They line underground nests with a waterproof cellophane-like secretion and are often called “plasterer” bees.

Check the Size and Position of the Eyes

A third clue is the size and position of the eyes.  Bees have eyes on the sides of their heads. Flies have larger, forward-facing eyes.   Eristalis tenax, below, has large, forward facing eyes, stubby antennae, and a single pair of outward angled wings.

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Eristalis is a commonly seen genus of flower fly.

Check for Pollen Sacs

Fourth, bees have specially adapted hairs on their legs or abdomens used to transport pollen to their nests.  If you see bulging pollen sacs, you are looking at a bee.  Both our native Mellisodes dentiventris (left) and the European honey bee (right) have specially adapted hairs on their legs to transport pollen.

Flies are considered second only to bees in their importance in pollinating our native plants.  With a little practice, these 4 tips may help you to decide, bee or fly?

One Bee at a Time.

I am learning about native pollinators the same way I learned about our native plants and native birds. Baby steps, one species at a time, and asking what makes each species unique. When and where can I find it?  Does it associate with other species?  What is its niche?  Its life cycle? Its dependencies?  How is the species coping with a changing world?

There are a few hundred bird species in North Carolina including some I will never see, or perhaps see and not recognize. The same can be said for our native plants.  That said, each bird or plant species I add to my “nature vocabulary” deepens my understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Each species enriches my next outing.

According to BugGuide.net, there are 4,000 species of native bees in North America. This is a short story about a chance encounter with a native shrub and a native bee.

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In March, 2012, on a day trip to the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, a roadside shrub caught my eye. Few native plants blossom in mid-March, especially in the Carolina sandhills, but here was this handsome shrub, covered with bright white blossoms. Leaves had emerged and clusters of raisin-like red fruit had somehow survived the winter. In the center of each 5-petaled flower, 20 bright pink stamens added to the charm.

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Small red hairs are visible along the mid-vein of the leaves of Red Chokeberry

In the spring of 2012 I did not know this shrub. I photographed the flowers, the fruit, and newly emerged leaves. As I did, a stream of buzzing bees visited blossom after blossom. I did my best to capture photos of a few of these bees.

In recent years Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ) has become a favorite shrub. It is an early blooming native that prefers a sunny, moist location and it is represented in many native plant gardens.  In the sandhills it is quick to recover following disturbance, be it thinning, burning, or road work.  It is slender, multi-stemmed, and often only 2 to 3 meters tall.

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Early blooming shrubs draw special attention from early emerging native bees. They depend upon each other.  Bees are foraging for pollen to cache for their offspring.  Aronia will not set fruit without the bees. In mid-March pollinators have limited choices and Aronia arbutifolia becomes a bee magnet.

That same spring day in 2012  I photographed an early, tall blueberry species along a pond margin.  Blueberry blossoms, not yet fully open, attracted small, fuzzy bees resembling unmarked bumblebees. I had seen this same species nectaring on the Aronia blossoms.

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I submitted several images of the bee to BugGuide.net who promptly identified the species as the Southeastern Blueberry Bee (Habropoda laboriosa). They are ground nesting bees. They emerge in early spring and are active from February through April. Sources suggest this native species is the most efficient pollinator of southern rabbiteye blueberries and are abundant in southern blueberry orchards.  According to a USDA post these bees are capable of buzz pollination and a single female may be responsible for the production of 6,000 blueberries.

Now that I know a bit about this one native bee,  I will be paying special attention to our early blooming  native Vaccinium species in hopes of witnessing  an instance of  blueberry “buzz pollination”.

Taking the “Pollinator Plunge”

After a decade of photographing native plants and native birds, I have decided to take the “pollinator plunge”.  Why?  Plants unable to reproduce will not persist over time.  A few of our native plants can self-pollinate but most depend upon a butterfly, a bee, a fly, or a wasp to carry grains of pollen to another blossom, resulting in fruits and seeds.

Native bees raise their young on stores of nectar and pollen they gather from flowering plants.  That’s why  bees are so busy.  All our native birds need nesting sites and all depend upon pollinators to raise their young.



Plants need pollinators.  Pollinators need plants.  And birds need both.  It is both very simple and wonderfully complicated.


The great majority of pollinators are insects, all of which have complex life cycles.  Butterflies require native hosts, plants that feed their caterpillars.  Bee larvae need pollen as food.  Flowers produce an excess of pollen, most consumed by insects.  A tiny fraction of pollen is incidentally deposited on another blossom.  Many pollinators have very specific dependencies on native plants. Think milkweeds and monarchs.  Flower shape often limits suitable pollinators.  Tubular flowers such as honeysuckle need pollinators with long tongues including hummingbirds.


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A Ruby-throated Hummingbird Male Visits Native Honeysuckle.

So where to start?  Chickasaw plum is one of our early blooming native shrubs.  In early spring bright white blossoms decorate open fields  As you approach a Chickasaw plum in full bloom you can hear the activity as butterflies and bees mob the shrubs.


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A Chickasaw Plum in Full Bloom in a Sandhills Field.

Field sparrows overwinter on a diet of grass seeds but as spring unfolds, insects become an important part of their diet.  As with other native birds, field sparrow chicks will be raised on a parent-supplied stream of insects and spiders.


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A Field Sparrow Visits a Chickasaw Plum in mid-March.

By mid-May, the fruit of Chickasaw plums begin to ripen and provide food to birds and other wildlife, including Summer Tanagers.


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A Female Summer Tanager with a Ripening Chickasaw Plum.

As spring arrives, I look forward to the blossoms of our native Chickasaw plum.  They mark the start of a new season of native plants, nesting birds, and the pollinators that make it all possible.

Over time, I hope to share some pollinator anecdotes.  Short stories about a native plant, a native pollinator, and maybe a bird.  Most of my posts will raise more questions than they answer.  Questions that provide a good excuse for another outing.  And an excuse for me to share another story.